If you thought immigration wouldn't be a factor in the 2012 presidential election, think again.

The Obama administration's announcement Friday of a new policy intended to protect thousands of young immigrants from deportation could reshape the dynamics of the 2012 presidential race.

Resounding support from the Latino community helped propel President Obama into office in 2008. But immigration advocates have grown increasingly disillusioned with the president, who came into office promising to pursue comprehensive immigration reform but has since ratcheted up deportations to record levels -- more than 1.2 million so far.

Compounding the frustration was the fact that the DREAM Act, a bill that would extend citizenship to some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children, withered in the face of Republican opposition.

While the policy the administration announced Friday does not provide a route to citizenship, it still mirrors the DREAM Act's central intent. Young, undocumented immigrants who have no criminal records and are either enrolled in school, have completed high school or have served in the military will be immune from deportation; those who are facing removal will see their cases suspended. Administration officials estimate that as many as 800,000 immigrants could be eligible.

The new policy also bolsters the administration's contention that its focus is deporting immigrants who have criminal records or have repeatedly violated immigration law. Immigration advocates have assailed the administration for sweeping up many immigrants who have committed only minor offenses or, in some cases, no crimes at all (immigration is a civil offense). Last summer, the administration rolled out a shift in enforcement policy with the same goal.

Support - And Criticism - Of Decision Has Been Quick

Praise has already poured in from immigration advocates and Democrats. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who sponsored the DREAM Act, said in a press release that the new initiative represented a historic humanitarian moment.

This action will give these young immigrants their chance to come out of the shadows and be part of the only country they've ever called home, Durbin said. These young people did not make the decision to come to this country, and it is not the American way to punish children for their parents' actions.

The backlash from Republicans was equally swift. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who chairs the House committee that oversees immigration, denounced the measure as a magnet for fraud and suggested that Obama was putting immigrants before unemployed Americans.

President Obama and his administration once again have put partisan politics and illegal immigrants ahead of the rule of law and the American people, Smith said in a statement. With this track record, it's looking more likely that even President Obama may lose his job in this economy when Americans go to the polls this November.

Romney Says He Will Veto DREAM Act If Elected

The contrasting responses crystallize the parties' respective positions on immigration. Republicans have closed ranks in denouncing legislation like the DREAM Act as amnesty that encourages illegal immigration, a charge that Mitt Romney embraced vigorously during the Republican primary. Romney has said he would veto the DREAM Act if elected.

The issue's volatility and divisiveness was on display on Friday when Obama was repeatedly interrupted by a heckler while detailing the shift in a speech at the White House. The heckler accused Obama of neglecting American workers.

Underlying all of this is the potentially decisive role Latino voters are poised to play in the 2012 election. The outcome in key swing states like Florida, Colorado and New Mexico could hinge on large and growing Hispanic populations. While polls show Obama enjoying a decisive lead over Romney among Latino voters, getting those voters to the polls is another issue.

Offering relief to DREAM Act-eligible immigrants could help galvanize turnout while sharpening the contrast between Obama and Romney and immigration. There are already signs that a raft of tough new immigration laws modeled on Arizona's controversial S.B. 1070 -- which the Supreme Court is set to rule on some time this month -- have alienated Latino voters and soured their perceptions of Republicans.

The Obama campaign has made a hard push for Latino voters already, releasing a volley of Spanish language advertisements that portray Romney as extreme on immigration. Romney, meanwhile, has based his appeal to Latino voters on his contention that he would do a better job of promoting their economic prospects. 

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